Government authorities declared a state of emergency Oct. 1 after two weeks of heavy rains took a dozen people’s lives and displaced 5,000 more, raising concerns that much of Nicaragua is already saturated with more than a month left to go in the rainy season.
Climate change activists point to the recent destruction as an indication that Nicaragua has not done enough to prepare residents for the effects of climate change.–
Rampant deforestation and riverside settlements have caused soil erosion and made the country more prone to flooding, said Mauricio Rosales, meteorologist at the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER).
“We can’t keep attacking the forest,” he told The Nica Times this week.
In addition to Nicaragua’s ongoing deforestation problem, which has seen tree cover cut nearly in half over the past 50 years, meteorologists such as Rosales expect Nicaragua to experience less rainfall than in the past, but more concentrated downpours, along with rising temperatures that could increase the likelihood of natural disasters such as hurricanes and flooding. Their predictions are in line with the Inter–governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2001, which predicted temperatures in Central America will rise by 1-3 degrees Celsius and rainfall will decrease by 25 percent by 2070.
In addition to the implications that climate change has on safety and public health in Nicaragua, where indigenous residents on the Caribbean coast are still recovering from last year’s Category 5 Hurricane Felix, some biologists say it may have major effects on the biodiversity of one of the world’s most densely biodiverse nations.
Farmers already note changes in rainfall and say Nicaragua’s agrarian economy must prepare to adapt.
“It’s an issue that we are only beginning to study as a whole,” said Antonio Mijail, a field researcher for Asociacion Gaia who next year will launch a study on the effects that climate change has on Nicaragua’s biodiversity, with support from the Nature Conservancy.
Mijail has been lobbying for the government to elaborate a climate change policy, which the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources has in the works.
Rosales said heavy and steady rains over the past two weeks saturated eroded soils, causing flooding in the northern departments of Matagalpa and Nueva Segovia and in Granada’s lakeside Malacatoya region, among other affected areas.
He said that more heavy rains are forecast for October and November before the hurricane season comes to an end.
For Rosales, deforestation, soil erosion, and contamination of Nicaragua’s watersheds are as much a culprit for increasingly intensive natural disasters as are changes in weather patterns.-
“The soil is saturated, some rivers are flooding and there are areas that are still flooded. These are conditions in which even a small quantity of rain can cause a disaster, like landslides, erosion, more flooding, or flash floods,” he said.
Col. Mario Pérez Cassar, head of Nicaragua’s Civil Defense, said that most of last week’s deaths occurred because people tried crossing swollen rivers and drowned in the current. Landslides in Murra, in the northern highlands, cut off access to clinics there, while the rice-growing area of Malacatoya remained flooded for more than a week.
Some 800 people were put into shelters last week as infrastructure and crop damages are assessed. Though the National Assembly scrambled to approve $5 million to repair 2,000 kilometers of damaged roads, Transport and Infrastructure Minister Fernando Martínez said at least $7 million is needed. He said the government will look abroad for more financial support.
Roads used to ship coffee out of the north have suffered some of the worst damage, and the road to the Caribbean port of El Rama was damaged by eight landslides, Martinez reported.
Workers won’t be able to start repairs until things dry out, Martínez said.
Col. Pérez said the government fears the situation could now turn into a health catastrophe. “There’s no water to drink. Latrines are flooded, there are dead animals floating around and a lot of fetid water,” he said.
On International Day for Natural Disaster Reduction, Oct. 8, Ramón Arnesto Soza, director of the National System of Prevention and Attention of Disasters (SINAPRED) estimated that natural disasters have cost Nicaragua $6 billion and 30,000 lives over the past four decades – about the same death toll as the 1980s-U.S.-backed Contra war.
Among them were devastating hurricanes Juana in 1988, Mitch in 1998 and Felix in September 2007.
Changing Rain Patterns
Coffee producer Javier Davila said the rain patterns on the farm are changing.
More rain is falling in the dry season and less is falling during the traditional rainy season months on the coffee plantation he oversees in San Ramón, Matagalpa.
“That’s going to have serious consequences for agriculture in rural Nicaragua, especially in terms of plagues and harvest dates,” said Davila, 40. He recently called forestry authorities when he caught a neighbor illegally cutting down trees for timber.
“I’m aware of the need for human beings to change their relationship with nature,” he said. He agrees that a climate change policy is needed.
“We have to adapt ourselves, we have to zone farming. We have to make water more available and distribute it more rationally,” meteorologist Rosales said.
INETER is in the process of designing a he researcher, it will be plants and small animals with the least mobility – such as worms or clams – that will face the biggest threats from climate change as their habitats start to change.
Slight temperature changes have major effects on fragile mangrove habitats, which are natural sanctuaries for biodiversity along Nicaragua’s coasts, he said.
More mobile animals, such as migratory birds, will likely fair better. As Mijail’s fiveman research team does more field work, he hopes to find out exactly which species are at most risk from climate change.
“It’s a phenomenon that the campesinos mention to us. We know it’s happening. We don’t know how, exactly,” he said.
The threats to biodiversity also affect humans, Mijail said. He suspects that the 1995 and 2007 outbreaks of leptosporosis, a bacteria transmitted by animal urine, which killed more than 20 people, were in part due to climate change caused by deforestation.
By cutting down trees to make room for crops, campesinos eliminated the native habitats of native field rats. Their niches are now being filled by disease-carrying European rats brought to Central America on Spanish ships, he said.
MARENA, which has been consulting different sectors, from the military to farmers, said it plans to launch its national climate change plan by the end of this year.
“It’s important for all government institutions to unite because this is a worldwide problem that threatens us all,” said Environment Minister Juana Argeñal.